Let’s get into the training side of our 90 Days of Fitness Questions. This is another one I get a lot:
“Should I do my cardio before or after my strength training?“
Well, let’s start by defining what we’re talking about. Usually when I get this question people are defining “cardio” as long-duration, slow-to-moderate speed endurance work: Going for a run, bike, etc. They’re defining their “strength training” as a more traditional weight training session: Squatting, benching, etc.
For the record, those are not totally opposing activities. There are ways to develop strength WHILE improving one’s cardiovascular ability, which we do at Relentless, but for the sake of this discussion I’ll keep to those definitions to not muddy the waters too much.
When it comes to combining cardiovascular/endurance training with strength training, the common thought is often that if you do too much cardio you’ll lose all of your strength and muscle. We’ll actually get deeper into this in a later question, but the answer there is yes and no.
If you just throw a bunch of cardio activity on top of your already full strength training program, like a lot of people do (“I gotta drop some pounds, so I’ll start running a couple of miles after I lift”), then that is likely to happen. The body only has so much resources, both from a healing capacity but also from a nutrition point of view. So if you suddenly start burning an extra 500 calories per workout, but don’t add in the extra food, then that comes from somewhere. There’ll be some fat and some muscle. That’ll add up and you’ll lose mass. If you made those calories up, you’d find that that would be highly mitigated.
Also, there IS research that shows that the human body likes to do one thing: Build muscle or increase endurance. The research shows that there is a bit of a competitive aspect to this in the body and trying to go hard on both at the same time will stymie each other a bit. HOWEVER, this effect is pretty small and really only applies to people who are trying to max both. Simply going for a hike, bike ride, or jog is not enough to limit your muscle building.
That being said, in light of the original question: I recommend to my clients that, except for maybe a light 5-10 minute cardio warm-up (if they like) that they’d be far better off getting their strength training in BEFORE their cardiovascular activity, if they’re doing them in a single session.
The answer is this: Moderate-to-hard cardio will burn up a lot of energy and fatigue the muscles enough to limit your strength training session. You simply won’t be able to move as much weight. The opposite seems to be a bit less of an issue. Unless you are really working hard on improving your running times, etc then you won’t notice much of a difference from lifting first and doing some moderate cardio afterwards.
If you are trying to go hard at both then I recommend you, if possible, try to separate these two types of activities by about six hours or more. That should let you recover well enough to train the other activity hard, and it lessens the “confusion” effect on the body as I mentioned above.
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